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Accounting for Hostages in Algeria as Militant Conflict Intensifies in Mali

January 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Although a large number of hostages have been released in Algeria, efforts continue to secure and account for remaining captives and the casualties, including some Americans. In neighboring Mali, Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports that conflicts between Islamist militants and the Malian government continue.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Information trickled out today about the siege of a natural gas plant in Algeria. There was word that one American hostage had been killed, but a definitive accounting of all the captives remained elusive. At the same time, the Algerians allowed the world to see pictures of some who’d been rescued.

Amid continued confusion, these were the first images of natural gas workers freed by Algerian special forces.

MAN: We went out and waved up white banners so the national army would recognize us as workers and let us go.

JEFFREY BROWN: Others were less fortunate, shown bandaged and in hospital beds.

State TV broadcast the footage a day after the army launched its operation and two days after Islamist militants seized the In Amenas complex in the desert near the Libyan border. An Algerian worker said the kidnappers had separated Algerians from foreign workers. Then came the army assault.

MAN: We were in a room, all of us, 260 people, all of us gathered there when the army started firing from a plane. So we went out through a door, the back door, to escape, to get away. The army helped. If it wasn’t for the army, we would never have got out and got to the foreigners who were held hostage.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of the rescued foreigners joined in praising the Algerian military.

MAN: I think they did a fantastic job. I was very impressed with the Algerian army. Very exciting episode. I feel sorry for anybody who has been hurt.

JEFFREY BROWN: Algeria’s state news agency reported that 100 out of 132 foreign hostages got out, and a dozen Algerians and foreigners died. It said nothing about the others. The militants had claimed to hold 41 foreigners, including seven Americans.

Today, U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said some Americans are still being held.

VICTORIA NULAND, State Department: I think we have been clear that we have American hostages. We have been clear about that.

QUESTION: And that’s still the case?

VICTORIA NULAND: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Later, The Associated Press reported that one American had died. Nuland flatly rejected a reported demand by the militants to trade two Americans for two convicted terrorists jailed in the U.S. One is Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted of plotting to blow up major sites in New York.

There were also reports that the Algerian gas plant had not yet been fully secured, and that the military operations were continuing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the issue after meeting with the Japanese foreign minister. She said she spoke today with the prime minister of Algeria.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: I urged the utmost care be taken in the protection of the hostages, Algerian and expatriate foreign hostages.

JEFFREY BROWN: Other countries raised questions as well and pressed for more information.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON, Great Britain: Thank you, mister speaker.

JEFFREY BROWN: In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that he’d had no advance warning of the rescue.

DAVID CAMERON: I was told by the Algerian prime minister while it was taking place. He said that the terrorists had tried to flee, that they judged there to be an immediate threat to the lives of the hostages, and had felt obliged to respond.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Indonesia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cut short his first overseas trip since taking office, with Japanese workers among the missing in Algeria.

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE, Japan: We must absolutely not forgive any act that takes a life of the innocent, and at the same time, the hostages’ lives have to be given absolute priority. Since the incident, our government has kept in touch with other nations and coordinated closely to gather information.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, the Algerian militants threatened today to carry out more attacks at foreign-owned sites.

RAY SUAREZ: In Algeria’s neighbor, Mali, French forces battled again today with Islamists.

We have an on-the-ground report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Crossing the river Niger, heading to the towns and villages threatened by Mali’s jihadi rebels further north. Every vehicle coming down the road is checked. Now that the French have bombed the jihads’ camps and convoys, the fear is that individual Islamists will infiltrate themselves and start a campaign of terror further south.

We speed up the road, evidence everywhere of how poor Mali is, how deprived, how hard life was even before war disrupted the people’s existence. As we arrived in Niono, we found a truckload of exhausted people who had fled Diabaly, 50 miles away, last night. The jihads have occupied the town for a week and yesterday’s French airstrikes were intense.

She ran for 24 miles through the bush with her children before the truck picked them up.

WOMAN: So many things happened. The rebels did everything. They destroyed our houses. They did everything. I’m so tired. We are very, very tired.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Several told me the jihads are mainly light-skinned Arabs whom they suspect are foreigners. Some are teenagers.

MAMADOU SOGODOGOU, Mali: I couldn’t tell their age. I could just see their size. It was clear they were very young people. Some were too small even to carry their own backpacks.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Malian army is in Niono to hold the line until the French arrive. The Malian soldiers say that without the French, they’d have no chance of confronting the jihadis. And the people I have been speaking today are just terrified.

With the tragedy in Algeria, people outside must be asking if the French were right to intervene in Mali. Here, there are no such doubts. When the jihadis took over the north last year, Malian troops just ran away. They couldn’t believe their eyes.

COL. SEIDU SODOGO, Malian Army: They’re really heavily armed. I don’t know how they managed to get those weapons. They’re the most sophisticated in the world. And those vehicles, how did they get the supply line? I saw hundreds of vehicles in the north of Mali. There are no petrol stations there, but they keep driving. It’s incomprehensible.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Local people bring rice to feed not just the displaced people, but the soldiers, too. They know they’re not out of danger yet.

SEIDU TRAORE, Prefect, Niono: What happened in Algeria is a manifestation of what we fear in Mali. After Mali, surely it would happen somewhere else.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The people of Mali have lived with this threat for years. Now the rest of the world is beginning to understand.